Report 2005-137 Summary - October 2006

California Public Schools: Compliance With Translation Requirements Is High for Spanish but Significantly Lower for Some Other Languages


Our review of the California Department of Education's (department) and California public schools' compliance with California Education Code, Section 48985 (state translation requirements) revealed the following:


In fiscal year 2005-06, the California Department of Education (department) reported that of the State's 6.3 million public school students, 2.7 million, or nearly 43 percent, spoke a primary language other than English at home. Moreover, almost 1.6 million of these students were also considered limited English proficient (English learners). These students lack the English language skills in listening comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing necessary to succeed in their schools' regular instructional programs. Over the past 40 years, federal and state courts, Congress, the California Legislature, and the voters of California have considered how best to educate English learners.

In the summer of 1975 the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued guidelines to all 50 states indicating, in part, that school districts have the responsibility to effectively inform the parents of students who speak a primary language other than English of all school activities or notices that are called to the attention of other parents, and that such notice must be provided both in English and in the primary language. The California Legislature responded to these federal guidelines in 1976 by adding Section 48985 to the California Education Code (state translation requirements). This state law requires that when 15 percent or more of the students enrolled in a public school that provides instruction in kindergarten through grade 12 speak a single primary language other than English at home, all notices sent to the parents of such a student by the school district or school must be provided in that language as well as in English. This report examines California public schools' compliance with the state translation requirements.

About half of California's 10,100 public schools had at least one primary language that required translations in fiscal year 2004-05, and we found that compliance for fiscal year 2005-06 was high for Spanish. Specifically, a survey we sent to 359 schools, to which 292 schools responded, indicated that schools are providing required Spanish translations for 4,136 of 4,534, or 91 percent, of the notices for which we received responses, while for 1,134 notices we did not receive a response. However, compliance rates drop significantly for some of the languages other than Spanish. For example, our survey indicates that schools are providing Mandarin and Hmong translations for only 54 percent and 48 percent, respectively, of the notices for which we received a response. We did not receive responses regarding the translations of 36 and 18 notices in Mandarin and Hmong, respectively. We found a variety of reasons for these lower compliance rates. For example, 16 percent of the survey respondents were not aware of the state translation requirements. In addition, some schools may not be meeting state translation requirements because their districts may use incorrect methods to identify the languages requiring translations.

Furthermore, some school districts and schools do not comply with state translation requirements because they believe there is little demand for translated notices. When calculating whether a language meets the 15 percent threshold, schools should use information from the home language survey, which the department designed mainly to identify the primary language that a student speaks at home. However, this survey may overstate the need for translations because it does not account for bilingual parents. For example, although Tagalog was the primary language spoken at home by nearly 40 percent of the students during fiscal year 2004-05 at one of the schools we visited, a survey initiated by the school's principal in June 2006 resulted in less than 6 percent of parents requesting that notices be sent home in Tagalog. Finally, a few of the districts we visited stated that they would need additional funding to meet the state translation requirements.

Although state law has not historically required the department to inform California public schools of the state translation requirements or to monitor their compliance with these requirements, the department's Categorical Program Monitoring process may assist schools in meeting these requirements. Moreover, Chapter 706, Statutes of 2006, which takes effect January 1, 2007, revises state law to require the department to take a larger role in ensuring that public schools comply with state translation requirements. In part, this legislation requires the department to begin notifying districts by August 1 of each year of the schools within each district, and the primary languages other than English, for which the translation of notices is required under state law. We believe that this legislation will help alleviate the condition that we noted in our survey and site visits whereby schools were not aware of the state translation requirements or incorrectly determined the languages that required translations.

Finally, pursuant to state law, in September 2005 the department created an Internet-based electronic clearinghouse for multilingual documents (clearinghouse) on which local education agencies and the department can post links to translated parental notices. However, despite the department's efforts to promote the clearinghouse, it has not achieved much participation from school districts. Specifically, 12 school districts and the department had posted links to translated notices on the clearinghouse as of mid September 2006. In addition, 80 percent of the 230 translated documents available through the clearinghouse were available only in Spanish as of mid-September 2006. The value of the clearinghouse as a resource cannot truly be achieved without greater participation from school districts.


To ensure that translated notices are sent only to parents who need them, the department should modify the home language survey to include a question asking parents to indicate the language in which they would like to receive correspondence. To ensure that this modification does not conflict with current law, the department should seek legislation to amend state law to allow parents to waive the requirement that they receive translated materials in their primary language when they do not need such translations.

To increase the value of the clearinghouse as a resource for translated parental notices, the department should encourage school districts to form coalitions for the purpose of leveraging their combined resources to translate standard parental notices into the languages they have in common. In addition, the department should consider using its available funding to encourage districts to upload links to their translated documents, especially in languages that are currently underrepresented in the clearinghouse.


Although the department and the Salinas Union High, Red Bluff Union Elementary, and Brisbane Elementary school districts did not provide formal responses to this report, they informally conveyed to us that they were satisfied with the descriptions in the report pertaining to them. The Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, Sacramento City Unified, Cupertino Union Elementary, and Fountain Valley school districts generally agreed with the findings in our report that pertain to their respective districts.